Bear attacks rare, but individuals should know what to do if it happens

BALDWIN — The recent sightings of bears in the area, plus the attack of a young girl in Wexford County last month, has raised the issue of what to do in such a situation.

The Department of Natural Resources continues to contend that such attacks are extremely rare. But officials do acknowledge that if such a situation occurs, individuals need to do certain things to insure their safety.

Running away from the bear isn’t going to work, the DNR says, and neither is playing dead.

The DNR notes in its website that between 15,000 and 19,000 bears are in Michigan, mainly around the hardwood and conifer forest in northern Michigan. Of that amount, 90 percent are in the Upper Peninsula and 10 percent in the northern Lower Peninsula. But there have been spottings in the south half of the Peninsula.

“We just finished a bear hair snare survey this summer which should help us get a better idea of the local bear population, but generally in the western Northern Lower Peninsula (NLP), bear numbers are stable to increasing,” said Lake and Osceola County wildlife biologist Erin Victory. “The Department has reduced the overall population in the NLP over the past several years, and currently the NLP bear population goal is to allow the population to decline slightly and then stabilize.

“The number of bear licenses issued in the Baldwin Bear Management Unit which includes all of Lake County and a small portion of Osceola County was increased by 40 percent to 70 total licenses in 2012. The type of exceptionally rare behavior exhibited in this recent attack is not linked to population size nor is it controlled by reducing bear populations.”

Victory added that bear encounters are not that uncommon and every spring and summer, the DNR receives a number of calls about nuisance bear in people’s yards. But attacks are very rare.

“Black bear are typically very timid and generally try to avoid people,” Victory said. “To prevent problems, we recommend to feed birds from November to March, regularly clean outdoor grills, including the grease pan, store trash, pet food and bird seed in a secure container in a secure building, put trash out the morning of pickup, and don’t burn trash. All of these things serve as attractants for bear, and can encourage bear into your yard.

“To avoid a bear encounter, travel in small groups and make noise. If you do encounter a bear, always ensure the bear has a clear escape route. Stand your ground, raise your arms to make yourself look larger, and then back away slowly. Never approach it, turn and run, or play dead. In the case of an attack, fight back using fists, sticks, or anything else at hand. Pepper spray can be effective in stopping attacks.”

Bob Myers of rural Baldwin has spotted a mother bear and her four cubs in recent months via a trail camera, coming to his backyard to work on the bird feeder.

“I haven’t seen that bear around in three weeks but I hear stories of her,” Myers said. “It’s still making the circuit.”

Myers said the attack in Wexford County shows why he has told others to be aware of any bear sightings.

“They can hurt you. You never know why,” he said. “You never know what they’re thinking. I think the worst thing that gal could do was run.”

A neighbor, hearing the girls’ screamsin the Wexford County attack, shouted and was able to get the bear to run off.

Katie Keen, DNR northern Michigan wildlife biologist admits that while individuals are cautioned not to run, it’s extremely human nature to do so. If they’re not to run or play dead, what can they do?

Myers said individuals, if they are lying down, should completely protect their neck area.

“There’s always the practical answer and always what someone does in a high stress situation,” said Keen. “The No. 1 thing to think about is you don’t want to surprise a bear. So if you’re out in the woods, we advise folks to make noise, you don’t walk upon something and startle it.”